XCOM: Enemy Unknown brings the XCOM series to a new generation of gamers who might be unfamiliar with turn-based strategy, and it is probably the best modern introduction to the genre, yet for those of us who played the original game to death it is a breath of fresh air – a brand new game that retains the heart of the series while bringing it up to date and streamlining it in good ways. I have explained the mechanics in detail in two different previews before this, so this review is really going to look at how Firaxis have achieved what many have believed was impossible by touching on the design elements that have produced the best strategy game I’ve played in a very long time.
Enemy Unknown is one of the most tense games I’ve played. Every move you make could be the one that turns the tide of the defense of Earth. A shot at poor odds by Rick Hunt, the last soldier remaining in your squad and a rookie, might be the shot that wins the battle and gains the support of an important country. It might also be a miss and lead to a failed mission and panic throughout the continent. One moment of bad judgment might see your squad decimated in one turn, leaving you short of soldiers and XCOM prone to being shut down. Every little choice is so important, from what building to build in your base, to how many interceptors to have, to what equipment to research and to buy, to what secondary weapon to equip your soldiers with, to what each soldier does on the battlefield – these all impact the entire XCOM project.
Both time and money are in short supply and keeping up with the growing alien threat can feel near impossible when setbacks happen. The balancing of difficulty and possibility creates a delicious tension while playing. Four difficulty levels make it possible to choose one that suits you, and Firaxis have made Normal relatively easy (that is, possible), so if you’re an old hand you will probably want to turn it up to Classic, which is just as vicious as before. Don’t get too attached to your soldiers and ensure that you always have a supply of soldiers on their way to HQ. The tension is turned up again with the Ironman mode, where you only have one save file and can’t use multiple saves to “undo” bad situations. Mission aborts (running back to the ship) are a real tactical option here if you want to keep your troops alive.
Despite the number of choices on each move being arguably fewer than the original game and certainly fewer than many strategy games out there, the outcome of different choices is both clear and very different. Many games offer the illusion of many choices, even as one choice is obviously better than the others. In XCOM the choices you make have real weight. Do I run to flank the enemy and risk there being more Sectoids hiding in the shadows? Do I use my single grenade now or save it for a more dire situation later? Do I run at the enemy to shoot them at close range at the risk of losing a soldier in reaction fire? Do I simply sit and shoot, hoping that my low odds shots will connect?
All of these are viable options, and the answers will depend on many things, some of which are simply your play style or how confident you feel. Risky choices can be handsomely rewarded or badly punished, and in XCOM you simply have to roll with the punches, pick yourself up and carry on. Choices in your home base are just as tricky. Your limited money supply means every dollar counts, and timing the building of new facilities is just as vital as good tactics on the field. Do I build a new Satellite to increase my monthly income, or use the money to buy Laser weapons because my soldiers are dying too frequently? Do I hire extra soldiers in case my next mission is a complete failure and there’s another alien incident shortly after it? There aren’t an overwhelming number of options, but they all have clear and varied consequences.
The obvious variety in XCOM is the different arenas – the turn-based tactical battles and the event based grand-strategic management of the entire XCOM project. Within the battles themselves there is significant variety too – from straightforward abduction sites to alien ship-landing sites to civilian rescue missions to bomb-defusing missions and VIP escorting missions. As your squad members level up they specialise into four different classes – Sniper, Heavy, Assault and Support, and each time they gain a rank you can choose an ability, creating variety even within your XCOM army troops. There is also a multiplayer mode included in the game which allows you to play as the aliens and build up a squad of units with a fixed amount of money, a great way of honing your tactics. The maps and battle system Firaxis have made support a variety of tactics too, from flanking to direct assault to picking off enemies from far (if you have a sniper). Each map has a number of ways to approach it and in 50+ missions I haven’t seen the same map twice.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not the most polished game you will find – there is the odd minor graphical glitch, for example. But everything is so thoroughly thought out and all the features seem absolutely necessary, where anything that doesn’t add to the fun has been judiciously cut out. Everything in the design fits snugly into everything else. For example, in the XCOM base if you place Laboratories next to each other you get a small number of bonus scientists, but in order to do this you will probably need to dig down a level which will cost money and increase base maintenance. So do I build a lab now and forego the potential bonus or wait until I can dig down and build two or three labs next to each other? This little tweak to placement of the buildings adds a layer of choice without adding much in the way of complexity, and it is indicative of the quality of the game design. The fact that your soldiers can only carry one extra item is another example, and makes choosing whether to pack a medikit or a grenade an important choice.
Each choice you make has a clear consequence (or at least clear odds). The tactical control system shows exactly what cover you will have on each spot and how far you can move and still shoot. The iconography of the commands is superb, and the details are available if you need to see it. The wonderful graphics enhance the clarity of the battlefield and the semi-fixed camera (which can only have four rotations and a few set heights) is a brilliant solution to how to enable different views and still allow you to get back to how you were used to seeing things. XCOM: Enemy Unknown communicates very clearly with the player about what they are about to do, which means you make very few mistakes because of unclear messages. Firaxis don’t let you see exactly how far an alien can move or shoot, but this only means less time spent optimizing your placement like in so many SRPG games and more time doing things that feel natural.
The addition of some very basic story elements to Enemy Unknown helps to build atmosphere and helps to build a sense of progression. The cut-scenes create a B-grade Sci-Fi movie feel well suited to the little grey Sectoid alien that first appears. The research reports fill out your understanding of the aliens as you do autopsies on them and research their weapon and power systems. Little touches like the things that soldiers say when they miss, hit or panic also build a more believable world. Even if it isn’t realistic at all, it’s a world worth saving.
The XCOM series remains truly unique in its blend of grand strategy and tactical combat, and Enemy Unknown is a game well worth the time of anyone who considers themselves a strategy gamer of any kind. In fact, I’d say it’s required playing for strategy gamers – you don’t want to miss this game. For others who mostly live in the world of action games, if you’re looking for a change of pace I can’t recommend this game highly enough. It’s a magnificent achievement by Firaxis, yet another to add to their already impressive canon.